A Twilight Concerto for Rats and Cello

I know only part of his story. I know him playing the cello on a dairy crate in the morning sun, suspended somewhere between boy genius and lost traveler.

But where does he go after dark?

For answers, I've come to skid row in downtown Los Angeles to spend the evening with Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. The sun has dropped behind glittering skyscrapers, and hardened creatures roam the streets.

Strung-out prostitutes strut their way down trashed streets. Fallen drunks are sprawled like bodies in the desert. Dozens of human forms disappear under piles of rags and casket-shaped cardboard boxes. Predators and hustlers lurk at the edges, tossing glances sharp as knives. Sewer smells mix in with the stench of urine, rotting food and unending stress.

No sign of Nathaniel yet on Los Angeles Street. This is his spot, he has told me. We were to meet at dusk.

But dusk comes and goes. More than a dozen people have staked out their spots and turned in for the night. I wonder if he's decided to spend the night elsewhere.

Nathaniel told me earlier about a savage beating that happened around here the other night. He didn't see the assault, but he saw the results.

"The guy's bones were rearranged in his face. I don't know why you'd beat a person like that. It makes no sense."

As I wait, a San Fernando Valley ministry serves chicken dinners to a long line of takers. Then the volunteers form a circle, call me to join hands with them and bow their heads in prayer. When the missionaries leave, a dazed blond woman caked in filth dials 911 on a pay phone. Sirens echo off concrete as two fire rescue crews approach.

"It's my heart," she tells the rescue crew, and the chief tells me they respond to calls like this repeatedly, night after night. The woman is loaded into a van and taken to the hospital.

I'm beginning to give up hope on Nathaniel when, around 9 o'clock, I see the familiar orange shopping cart approach from a block away. Everything he owns after half a century on this Earth is in that basket. The violin he bought in Cleveland is in there, along with the violin and cello donated to him by a reader from the Inland Empire.

Nathaniel has stopped under an apartment building, where live rock music is pouring out a second-floor window.

"You like the music?" I ask.

"You call that music?" Nathaniel responds.

He's classically trained. Boy wonder in Cleveland. Scholarship to Juilliard. And then 30 years of voices, demons, unexplainable outbursts, mental hospitals, antipsychotic drugs, missed opportunities and tormented, heartbroken, worn-out relatives.

Two dead palm fronds rise from the front of his basket, Jesus entering Jerusalem. At the rear, two sticks form an X. They are slid into the slots of a Ford hubcap, and Nathaniel has painted "Beethoven" on one and "Brahms" on the other.

Nathaniel rolls the cart down to his spot in front of a locked-down storefront.

"I know these guys," he says, pointing to half a dozen sprawled men who don't acknowledge his arrival.

Nathaniel tells me that if a fight breaks out, he knows whom to count on, whom to run from, where to hide.


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